Mary makes several appearances in the New Testament that demonstrate her discipleship such as anointing Jesus (John 12:3), and by the time of her brother’s death, leading the Jerusalem Jews to Jesus as recounted in John 11:18-45. She is known as Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, as well as Mary of Bethany. Because these accounts are spread across the gospels, with each account preserving different parts of her history, people often fail to see that Mary is obviously a well-known and honored name in the early church.
Like the many other Marys of the New Testament, Mary’s name signifies that she was born during a desperate time in Israel’s history. The name “Mary” means “one who cries bitter tears,” signaling her parents’ helplessness as they imagined her prospects under a system where the poor were often forced to relinquish their daughters into the hands of Roman soldiers.1 But Mary’s life took a different turn. Tearfully, she mourns the death of her brother Lazarus, moving Jesus to heal her brother. The First Nations Version of Scripture appropriately names her, “Healing Tears .”
Readers are often introduced to Mary through her sister Martha who complains to Jesus that Mary is shirking her hospitality duties by sitting at Jesus’s feet and listening to him teach (Luke 10:38-42). Readers respond in a variety of ways. Many women who hear Martha’s complaint feel a pang of sympathy for Martha—overloaded mothers especially feel Jesus’ rebuke to Martha as a reminder to slow down and enjoy the precious moments we have with our families while we have them. But what modern readers can easily miss are the cultural cues that point to this passage’s counter-cultural significance. Simply put, Luke describes Mary as choosing to sit at the feet of Jesus to become a rabbi one day and teach others. The linguistic clues revolve around Mary “sitting at the feet of Jesus”—the posture of disciples training to be teaching rabbis. Paul describes his own rabbinical training as “sitting at the feet of” Gamaliel in Acts 22:3.2 Close reading of the many Mary and Martha greetings to Jesus reveal that he is their teacher, or rabbi, and they are his disciples. Further, Martha’s confrontation with Jesus is the first recorded acceptance of a woman student by a rabbi, as he praised Mary’s choice to sit at his feet and learn.3
While some agree that women were allowed to learn, they argue that this passage does not endorse women’s teaching, reinforced by the fact that the Bible does not include any mention of Mary teaching.4 There are several problems with this argument. First, in Luke 8:21 Jesus has just explained that only those who do his work are his disciples. Further, Mary Stromer Hanson highlights how John 11:1-46 does in fact provide a detailed account of Mary leading the Jerusalem Jews at the time of the death and resurrection of her brother Lazarus (see her article linked below). John 11:18-19 details the Jerusalem Jews who “had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. ” Hanson notes that from this point on, these Jews are associated with Mary, mourning with her in her home, weeping before Jesus and ultimately following her to witness Jesus’s miracle of raising Lazarus from the dead.5 John 11:31 reads, “When the Jews who had been with Mary in the house comforting her, noticed how quickly she got up and went out, they followed her, supposing she was going to the tomb to mourn.” When Mary greets Jesus, she bursts into tears which first results in the Jews who follow her weeping, after which Jesus also weeps, “When Jesus saw her weeping and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved” (John 11:33, NRSV). Only then does Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead, with scripture noting the Jews who followed Mary saying, “Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did believed in him” (John 11:45, NRSV).
Mary’s prominence among the early church is obvious by the fact that the early synoptic gospels did not think it was necessary to include her name when they wrote about her anointing Jesus with oil (Matthew 26:6-13, Mark 14:3-9). Though Jesus says that she will be remembered for all time, as her act is remembered, none of the gospel writers thought to record her name because everyone knew her name! However, nearly two generations later, as John was writing his gospel, people were starting to forget the details of the early stories. In this context, he not only includes her name in his account of her anointing Jesus with oil (John 12:1-11), but he also reminds his leaders of her prominence when recounting Jesus’ raising Lazarus from the dead, saying, “Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair” (John 11:2, NRSV). As Stanley Grenz suggests, Mary’s anointing of Jesus at Bethany implies that she
understood the true nature of Jesus’ messiahship, a theological insight that Jesus’ male disciples failed to grasp throughout his entire earthly ministry…she seemed to realize that the Lord’s vocation included death. On this basis, Jesus rebuked the disciples’ grumblings against her, and he praised her action.6
Mary was one of Jesus’ disciples, sitting at his feet and learning, anointing Jesus before his crucifixion, and leading Jews to Jesus to witness his miracle of raising Lazarus from the dead.
To learn more, see “Mary and Martha: Celebrating the Gifts of Others,” by Janet Galante and Molly Kate Hance in Priscilla Papers.
“Reinterpreting Mary and Martha: Part 1,” by Mary Stromer Hanson
“Mary and Martha: Models of Leadership,” by Mary Stromer Hanson
- Boaz Johnson, “The Mary’s of the Bible and the #MeToo Movement,” Mutuality (December 13, 2019),
- Stanley J. Grenz and Deinise Muir Kjesbo, Women in the Church: A Biblical Theology of Women in Ministry (Westmont, IL: IVP Academic, 1995), 75.
- Leanne M. Dzubinski and Anneke H. Stasson, Women in the Mission of the Church: Their Opportunities and Obstacles Throughout Christian History (Ada, MI: Baker Academic, 2021), 15-17.
- Elizabeth Gillan Muir, A Woman’s History of the Christian Church: Two Thousand Years of Female Leadership (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2019), 11.
- Mary Stromer Hanson, “Reinterpreting Mary and Martha: Part 1,” Mutuality Blog, June 28, 2016.
- Grenz, Women in the Church, 76.